The release of Ai Weiwei

By Cressida Smart

On Wednesday 22 June 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was freed on bail. On 24 June, Europe welcomed the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. On 1 July, China celebrates the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. China is the world’s most powerful lender with a horrific history in human rights. It is forecast to become the world’s biggest economy in 2016, overtaking the US. This week, David Cameron will have to finely balance the need to speak out about the human rights situation with the need to stay of good terms with this growing power.

Following the release of Ai Weiwei, state newspaper Xinhua reported that Ai had confessed to “crimes” of tax evasion and was co-operating with the authorities. According to Xinhua, police said Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, “was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents.” Tax has long been used as a tool by the Chinese government to exert pressure on its opponents, as the rules are so complex. One US official commented: “If you want to be an activist in China you had better keep your finances squeaky clean.”

State news reports also said that the artist was in ill health; Ai takes regular medication, and has high blood pressure and diabetes. After his release, Ai told AFP: “I’m fine. I’m very happy to be free and I’m very happy to be back with my family,” but said he could not discuss any details as “I’m on bail so I can’t give out any information. I can’t do interviews.”

Paranoia swept through the mainland Chinese art world, especially in Beijing, following Ai’s arrest in April. “Things are really hard at the moment, no one can really talk. Now, if people want to talk we have to go somewhere outside, but still there are these directional microphones,” one person familiar with the situation, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed. Artists Lin Bing and Fei Xiaosheng, who curated a show with a blank space left for Ai Weiwei’s work, were held temporarily for questioning and released earlier this month. Most of the Chinese art world has remained silent over the arrest of Ai.

As China gears up for the 90th anniversary celebrations, internet access has been severely limited, and telecommunications have been behaving erratically. The current situation is far more advanced than the security clampdown after the Tiananmen Square slaughter. Ex-Tiananmen dissidents are now posting pictures of the protests online, as many of the younger generation know nothing of the incident. Those 1989 protestors are being referred to as the “early red chilli pepper seeds” who have given birth to today’s “jasmine flowers”. Similarly, the sunflower seeds used in Ai’s work are becoming something of a symbol of protest. Metaphors and code words are common ways of expressing dissent in China.

Last November, Cameron paid a visit to Beijing and used a public speech to denounce the country’s repressive political regime. He stressed the need for democratic elections, a free media and independent courts. His visit coincided with officials barring the lawyer of Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for 11 years for calling for political reform, from travelling to the UK. Cameron’s speech was not cleared in advance with the Chinese and was not shown on state TV. Looking at the current state of play, it would be hard not to view Ai’s release as political and timed with Wen Jiabao’s visit to the West.

It will be hoped that the release of Ai Weiwei will further prompt David Cameron to raise the appalling human rights regime in China and Tibet. Both Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to do so, particularly given the unrest sweeping the Arab world. However, the talks will be dominated by economic and trade issues as China’s vital interests are at stake if Europe cannot resolve its debt crisis, given that an estimated quarter of its $3.05 trillion foreign reserves are in Euro-denominated assets.

The visit will also help China better assess the current situation in Europe to finalise their policies and clarify their future role in Europe’s debt crisis. China is also keen to diversify its assets and the world’s largest supply of foreign currency reserves away from the U.S. dollar. It is torn between an obligation to safeguard its euro-denominated assets through new investments and not wanting to weigh itself with excessive risk.

Despite the economic troubles with the Euro, China has continued to demonstrate its confidence in the region and pledged to buy debt issued by some of its troubled member states such as Greece and Portugal. The EU is now China’s largest trading partner with trade worth nearly 400 billion Euros. While Chinese exports jumped 14% to hit 282 billion Euros last year, the debt crisis has begun to weigh. This heavy economic reliance on China puts world leaders under pressure not to severely challenge China’s human rights administration. Britain wants to double trade with China by 2015 to $100 billion, relating to its overall strategy of trying to do more business with the ascendant BRIC nations to help offset subdued domestic demand, at a time of sharp spending cuts.

David Cameron must now hold back from bowing to the demands of China. The West cannot ignore incidents such as the uncalled-for arrest of Ai Weiwei and his subsequent release. Great Britain should not allow itself to enter into economic and trade discussions with a country that denies its citizens the basic right of freedom of speech. It should make a stand against a country that, at the start of July, will celebrate 90 years of an oppressive regime that arrests and imprisons those who are using their fame and fortune to bring democracy to China. Let us hope that in 2016, if China is acknowledged as the world’s biggest economy we will also be commending their improved human rights system.

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